DC jury convicts three men in fatal shooting of 13-year-old
DC jury convicts three men in fatal shooting of 13-year-old

A jury in the Superior Court of the District of Washington, DC, late Wednesday found three men guilty of first-degree murder and other charges in connection with a series of shootings that left 10 people injured and, at its peak, killed a 13-year-old boy who was on his way to play basketball with a group of friends in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest Washington.

The brazen shooting of Malachi Lukes, a student at Cardozo Education Campus, on Sunday afternoon rocked the nation’s capital after authorities determined that the shooters – members of a neighborhood street gang – had only targeted Malachi and his friends because they lived in the area. The gang, authorities said, wanted revenge on everyone in the neighborhood in the name of a gang member who was fatally shot a year earlier.

During the four-month trial, prosecutors linked Malachi’s murder to a turf war, claiming that members of a neighborhood gang shot the boy and his friends because they happened to be walking where the gang’s rivals were. The bullet that took Malachi’s life pierced his neck four days before his 14th birthday. One of his friends was shot in the leg.

In total, prosecutors charged the three men in nearly a dozen other shootings between Feb. 18 and March 1, 2020, when Malachi was killed. The jury deliberated for nearly five weeks before convicting Tyiion Freeman, 24, of Northwest Washington, Koran Jackson, 23, of Southeast Washington, and Stephen Nelson, 33, of Hyattsville, Maryland. Federal prosecutors viewed the series of shootings as retaliation for the 2019 shooting death of 19-year-old Tahlil Byrd near the Shaw Metro station, not far from where Malachi was killed.

“These men were on the hunt. They were looking for enemies. And they found them, in a 13-year-old,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Jackson in her closing argument a few weeks earlier. “A 13-year-old who posed no threat to these grown men.”

Defense attorneys for the men argued that prosecutors had no DNA evidence, eyewitness accounts or video footage linking their clients to the shootings. Prosecutors argued that a flurry of text messages before and after the shooting, as well as video surveillance footage, identified the men as responsible.

During the trial, jurors heard from more than 100 witnesses and reviewed more than 1,000 pieces of evidence before evaluating more than 40 charges, including first-degree murder, conspiracy, gang offenses and weapons offenses.

When the guilty verdicts were read out on Wednesday, none of the men sitting next to their lawyers showed any reaction. The men face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The verdict is scheduled for September.

Freeman’s attorney told Judge Rainey Brandt that his client wants to be sentenced under the district’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Act, a controversial city law that gives people who were 25 or younger at the time of their crime a chance at a lighter sentence and sealing of their criminal records if they successfully complete their probation.

During the trial, prosecutors claimed Freeman fired at the group from the back seat of a stolen silver Kia Soul while two other shooters were inside the vehicle. Koran Jackson, prosecutors said, was the driver. Prosecutors said Nelson helped obtain the weapons and disposed of them after the shooting that killed Lukes. He was not present that day, prosecutors said, but he faces a possible life sentence.

During closing arguments, Malachi’s mother, Melissa Laws, sat in the second row of the courtroom, tears streaming down her face, as prosecutors played body camera footage showing police officers attempting to revive the teen, who was lying in an alley near the 600 block of South Street NW. None of Malachi’s friends could identify the shooters and told investigators that a car sped past them and opened fire.

On the first day of the trial, Laws told the jury that she named her youngest child after the last book of the Old Testament, as a symbol of a new beginning in her life. He had scored well on his eighth-grade entrance exam and had a summer job lined up helping film a segment for Real News Camp, a social program produced at the Shaw Community Center. Months before the shooting, Malachi appeared in the role of the lion in a production called “Wizard of Shaw,” a play about the influence of go-go music.

Prosecutors said they linked the men to the shooting through location data from their cell phones, text messages in which they discussed purchasing and disposing of the firearms, and social media posts and rap lyrics that prosecutors said referenced the shooting.

Prosecutor Michelle Jackson repeatedly referred to Freeman as the group’s “note-taker” and showed the jury numerous text messages between Freeman and the other men that prosecutors said detailed the men’s decision to work together in the shooting. Prosecutors showed videos of the men before and after the shooting, which they said showed the distinctive clothing and sneakers the men wore before the shooting, at the time of the shooting and afterward.

The lawyers argued over the interpretation of the physical evidence presented at trial. The prosecutors described it as conclusive, while the defense described it as poor and based on circumstantial evidence.

Surveillance footage of the shooting was too grainy to identify Freeman, argued his attorney Andrew Ain, who said Freeman was not present at the time.

Prosecutors argued that the DNA on the steering wheel was linked to co-defendant Koran Jackson. But his attorney, Brian K. McDaniel, said the DNA found in the vehicle only proved that his client was in the vehicle at some point. He argued that his client was not in the vehicle at the time of the shooting.

McDaniel said witnesses did not identify his client as being involved in the shooting. But prosecutors said that was because the witnesses identified people who got out of the car to shoot. As the driver, Koran Jackson remained in the vehicle, they said. While McDaniel acknowledged that Jackson collected weapons, he said that was because Jackson felt he needed protection in a high-crime area.

Prosecutors also charged two other men, Reginald L. Steele and Aaron Dequan Brown, with the shootings. During the ongoing trial, defense attorneys pushed back against prosecutors’ attempts to portray the defendants as equally culpable for Malachi’s death, pointing to evidence they said linked the crimes to Steele, not their clients.

In a brief interview, Steele’s attorney, Megan Allburn, declined to comment on the other defense attorney’s claims. Both Steele and Brown are incarcerated in the Washington, D.C. jail awaiting a trial date.

As the foreman read the guilty verdicts to the jury of five men and seven women, Laws hunched forward in her chair, resting her head in her hands and wiping tears from her eyes while another family member rubbed her back.

Outside the courtroom, she hugged and thanked one of the Washington District’s lead homicide detectives who was in charge of her son’s case.

“I’m so relieved,” Laws said. “I feel like justice has been done, not only for my son, but for his friends.”

By Everly